Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Nature of the Beast

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu

Adam Smith points out, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that, President Bill Clinton’s claim to “feel your pain” notwithstanding, people can know only their own feelings. To the extent that an individual empathizes and sympathizes with another, he or she does so only vicariously, by imaginatively putting him- or herself in the other’s place. The ability to identify with other people, only if imaginatively, creates a sense of community as a “fellow-feeling” develops, which allows people to regard others as their kith and kin. Occasionally (and usually to their regret) people project their own feelings onto animals, including bears, gorillas, and lions, regarding them as their fellows as well. Something of such a fellow-feeling between humans and animals may be evident in the half-human, half-animal hybrid creatures of ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Indian mythologies.

When an animal attacks, without warning, as wild animals are wont to do, people who have invested the animals with personalities similar to their own are sometimes at a loss to account for the beasts’ apparent betrayal. Other times, such individuals make an attempt to psychoanalyze the animal, as a female diver did after the whale she was petting, gripping her leg in its mouth, dove to a depth of approximately fifty feet before releasing her, and, short on oxygen, she barely made it back to the surface of the water. The whale, she believed, was annoyed at her for her invading its personal space. In past times, animals have even been condemned and executed for the “crimes” they committed against individuals, and in Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick, Captain Ahab stalks the great white whale that bit off his leg.

It may be that people prefer anthropomorphism to the truth that animals are not people and, therefore, do not aspire, believe, doubt, feel, imagine, or think as people do. Although animals are definitely sentient and may be capable of limited cognition, including the ability to experience emotions to a degree, they are obviously not as sophisticated as even a young child in their ability to engage in complex, prolonged cognitive processes. Most animals do not have opposable thumbs, of course, which is a serious handicap, no doubt, in using (or even manufacturing) tools, but there are many other obstacles to their creation, maintaining, and developing art, science, and the other accoutrements of culture. No matter how fond one may be of one’s goldfish, hamster, guinea pig, rat, snake, canary, cat, dog, pot-bellied pig, or horse, the animal is not going to write a symphony to rival one by Johann Sebastian Bach, devise an invention to rival Thomas Edison's incandescent light bulb, or put one of their own on the moon.

Animals are not human. By nature--even by definition--they are other-than-human, the closest approximation that we have to the extraterrestrial biological entities of science fiction and horror, as alien as the great gelatinous mass of The Blob or H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu. We cannot put ourselves in their places, because they are not the same as we; they are not our equals in consciousness, memory, cognition, imagination, emotion, or any other mental process. In short, they are as William Butler Yeats describes the “rough beast” that, in “The Second Coming,” “slouches. . . towards Bethlehem to be born,” its “gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun.” Anyone who has ever studied the eye of a rattlesnake, an eagle, or a tiger knows the gaze that Yeats describes. It is unnerving precisely because of its inhumanity. The eyes, for men and women, may be “mirrors of the soul,” but animals have no souls to mirror, which is the very reason that their “blank and pitiless” stare is horrible and terrifying to us. Their gaze proves, to the intuition, if not to reason, that the animal is other-than-human and that it may be dangerous. There is no “fellow-feeling” between a man or a woman and a serpent, a hawk, or a lion for the simple reason that there cannot be. Therefore, beasts are dreadful.

Poets know this, as Yeats’ description of his poem’s “rough beast” shows. Emily Dickinson knows, too, the alien nature of the animal, as her poem about the “narrow fellow in the grass” whose presence leaves her “zero at the bone” shows. D. H. Lawrence also knows the alien nature of the serpent, as his poem, “The Snake,” indicates. Steve Irwin believed that he knew animals, although he was never sentimental enough to suppose that they feel as he felt or think as he thought. He loved the beasts of the field and the forest, the air and the sea, but, the moment he was careless, he paid with his life, a stingray’s barb through his heart, and Roy, of the Las Vegas magic act billed as “Sigfried and Roy,” was mauled by the white tiger that the duo used in their act, despite his love for the great cat.

It is the otherness of animals' nature that compels horror writers to use them--or parts of them, such as their fangs, their claws, their scales, their wings, their impervious hides, to describe monsters. By assigning animal characteristics to human beings, such writers reverse the process of which Smith writes, causing readers to alienate themselves from the monster who is too unlike them, fanged and clawed as these monsters are, to allow identification and sympathy. There can be no fondness, no fellow-feeling, no trust between the human and the other-than-human, because whatever is inaccessible to the imagination is beyond empathy. This is true despite the fact that some people--the Ted Bundys and Jeffrey Dahmers and Adolph Hitlers and Saddam Husseins among us--are worse than any lion, tiger, or bear, oh, my. Therefore, in science fiction, fantasy, and horror fiction, readers may continue to expect such monsters as the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the ape-like mutants of “The Lurking Fear,” the gigantic spider of It and The Lord of the Rings, and the human-animal-alien hybrids of the thousands of horror stories, in print and on film, that have been are, and are to come.

Since the days of Job, when God asked his loyal servant whether he’d considered Leviathan and his ways, such has been the nature of the beast.

Masters of the Macabre

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Genre fiction focuses upon the conveyance of one emotion. For science fiction, according to C. S. Lewis, the emotion is wonder, whereas, Edgar Allan Poe implies, horror fiction, as the genre’s name suggests, evokes horror. Why readers would want to be frightened out of their wits is taken up in another post, “Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear.” Other genres inspire other emotions, but this post is concerned simply with naming names--that is, with identifying authors who have written works of horror fiction. Many mined the mother lode of horror; others panned for the gold only once or twice. In every respect, though, each of the authors listed has written at least one satisfying poem, short story, novel, play, or motion picture that delves into fear, and, in this regard, may be considered a master of the macabre. When a writer has written many works in the genre, only his or her name is listed; when the author has written only one or two instances of the fiction of fear (or a truly seminal work* in the field), the title of the work is also listed. Some of the names on our roster are likely to surprise those for whom horror fiction is not one’s daily bread. We thought of listing the names chronologically, by sex, by the stature of the author’s literary reputation, by the volume of works that he or she wrote in the horror genre, and in various other ways, but decided, at last, upon an alphabetical listing.

  • Adam, Richard, The Girl in a Swing
  • Andrews, V. C.
  • Anson, Jay, The Amityville Horror
  • Barker, Clive
  • Beaumont, Charles
  • Benchley, Peter, Jaws
  • Bierce, Ambrose
  • Blackwood, Algernon

William Peter Blatty

  • Blatty, William Peter, The Exorcist (seminal)
  • Bloch, Robert, Psycho (seminal)

Robert Bloch

  • Bradbury, Ray, Something Wicked This Way Comes
  • Brandner, Gary, The Howling
  • Brite, Poppy Z.
  • Browning, Robert
  • Campbell, Ramsey
  • Clark, Mary Higgins
  • Clegg, Douglas
  • Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel (seminal)
  • Dante, Alighieri, The Inferno
  • De Felitta, Frank, Audrey Rose
  • Dickens, Charles, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, “The Signalman”
  • Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan
  • Du Maurier, Daphne, The Birds (seminal)
  • Duncan, Lois, I Know What You Did Last Summer
  • Eddy, Jr., C. M.
  • Ehrlich, Max, The Reincarnation of Peter Proud
  • Faulkner, William, “A Rose for Emily”
  • Farris, John
  • Finney, Jack, Invasion of the Body Snatchers
  • Fowles, John, The Collector
  • Gilbert, Stephen
  • Golding, William, Lord of the Flies

Nathaniel Hawthorne

  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel (seminal)
  • Irving, Washington, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”
  • Jackson, Shirley, The Haunting of Hill House (seminal), “The Lottery”
  • Jacobs, W. W., “The Monkey’s Paw”
  • James, Henry, “The Turn of the Screw”
  • James, M. R.
  • Kafka, Franz, The Metamorphosis
  • Keene, Brian

Stephen King

  • King, Stephen (seminal)
  • Koontz, Dean (seminal)
  • Laimo, Michael
  • Le Fanu, Sheridan
  • Levin, Ira, Rosemary’s Baby (seminal)
  • Ligotti, Thomas
  • Little, Bentley
  • Lovecraft, H. P. (seminal)
  • Machen, Arthur
  • Marasco, Robert, Burnt Offerings
  • Matheson, Richard
  • McCammon, Robert
  • Milton, John, Paradise Lost
  • Oates, Joyce Carol

Flannery O'Connor

  • O’Connor, Flannery (seminal)
  • Onion, Oliver, “The Beckoning Fair One”
  • Peck, Richard, Are You Alone in the House?
  • Peretti, Frank E. (seminal)
  • Perkins, Charlotte, “The Yellow Wallpaper”
  • Pike, Christopher

Edgar Allan Poe

  • Poe, Edgar Allan, Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque (seminal)
  • Polidori, John William, The Vampyre
  • Preston, Douglas and Lincoln Child
  • Price, E. Hoffman
  • Quinn, Seabury
  • Radcliffe, Ann, The Mysteries of Udolpho
  • Rice, Anne
  • Rollins, James
  • Saul, John
  • Shakespeare, William, Titus Andronicus, Hamlet (seminal)
  • Shan, Darren

Mary Shelley

  • Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (seminal)
  • Simmons, Dan
  • Smith, Clark Ashton

Robert Louis Stevenson

  • Stevenson, Robert Louis, The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (seminal)
  • Stine, R. L.

Bram Stoker

  • Stoker, Bram, Dracula (seminal)
  • Straub, Peter
  • Tem, Steve and Melanie
  • Tryon, Thomas
  • Twain, Mark, “A Ghost Story” (seminal)
  • Van Vogt, A. E., “The Black Destroyer”
  • Von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang, Faust
  • Wakefield, H. Russell
  • Wallace, Edgar, King Kong (seminal)
  • Walpole, Horace, The Castle or Otranto (seminal)

H. G. Wells

  • Wells, H. G. (seminal)
  • Wilde, Oscar, The Picture of Dorian Gray (seminal)
  • Wilson, Colin
  • Wordsworth, William, the “Lucy” poems
  • Wyndham, John, The Village of the Damned (seminal)

* Although what one considers to be a "seminal work" is apt to be controversial, the term as it is used in this post is attributed to literary works that have had a lasting importance upon the horror genre or that proved innovative in having established a new direction for succeeding works in the same genre or in expanding its subject matter.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Horror By the Slice: “The Lurking Fear”

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

According to some critics, H. P. Lovecraft is the twentieth century’s leading horror writer and a transitional figure between the late, or neo-, Gothic fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and the more recent horror fiction of Stephen King and other contemporary writers in the genre. There is no doubt that Lovecraft has had an influence upon the genre and that his techniques for creating chills and thrills are used by the many horror writers who have followed him. These same techniques can assist any author in creating similarly tales of terror. Therefore, in this post, we will examine the methods of his madness.

For those who are unacquainted with the story, a summary is in order:

“The Lurking Fear” is divided into four parts:

  • “The Shadow on the Chimney”
  • “A Passer in the Storm”
  • “What the Red Glare Meant”
  • “The Horror in the Eyes”

With “thunder in the air,” the protagonist-narrator, a sort of nineteenth-century ghost hunter, accompanied by two strapping men, George Bennett and William Tobey, ascends Tempest Mountain, the scene of a “catastrophe,” to visit a deserted, reportedly haunted mansion. He says he wishes he’d invited reporters to join him, as then others would share his secret knowledge and it could have been they, not he, who tells the story of the fear he discovered lurking there. No animals live on the mountaintop, and “the ancient lightning-scarred trees” appear “unnaturally large and twisted.” After parking his automobile, the trio make their way through the forbidding forest, the protagonist recalling the myths and legends that have accumulated over the years concerning the Martense family, the mansion’s ghosts, and a demon that is said to abduct “lone wayfarers after dark.”

According to one story, villagers abandoned their homes one night, complaining of having sensed a catastrophe involving the sudden deaths of many squatters in a nearby village.

The next morning, a search party finds evidence that many of the squatters were attacked by the fangs and claws of some nameless monster: “Of a possible seventy-five natives who had inhabited this spot, not one living specimen was visible. The disordered earth was covered with blood and human debris bespeaking too vividly the ravages of demon teeth and talons; yet no visible trail led away from the carnage.” Local residents “quickly connected the horror with the Martense mansion,” despite its three-mile distance from the scene. A thorough investigation of the house and its environs, however, turn up nothing, and, after three weeks, the reporters on the scene disperse, leaving the protagonist alone to investigate the possibility that “thunder called the death-demon out of some secret place.”

The men take up their vigil in the bedroom of Jan Martense, sharing a “four-poster bedstead,” which they drag “from another room” and place “laterally against the window.” They’ve hung three rope-ladders from the ledge outside the room, in case the demon appears inside the house and will use the stairs to escape if it should appear from without the house. All the men are armed, and two sleep in shifts, while the third keeps watch.

After his watch, the protagonist falls asleep, has “apocalyptic visions,” which awaken him, and he realizes that one of his companions, Bennett, is gone, “God alone knew whither.” His gaze is fixed upon the bedroom’s fireplace. A terrific bolt of lightning lights the room and the surrounding countryside, awakening the frightened Tobey, who starts “up suddenly,” casting his shadow upon the “chimney above the fireplace,” but the shadow is a hideous and monstrous one that terrifies the ghost hunter: “the shadow on that chimney was not that of George Bennett or of any other human creature, but a blasphemous abnormality from hell's nethermost craters; a nameless, shapeless abomination which no mind could fully grasp and no pen even partly describe.” The next instant, the protagonist discovers, he is “alone in the accursed mansion, shivering and gibbering. George Bennett and William Tobey” leave “no trace, not even of a struggle” and are “never heard of again.”

In part two of the story, the protagonist awakens in his “hotel room in Lefferts Corner,” unaware of how he managed to escape the mansion and drive down the mountaintop and ignorant as to whether Bennett and Tobey also managed to get away and, if so, where they might have gone. He is convinced of the reality of the experience he’s had, however, and of the reality of the demon he’s encountered, for, its lying of one of his limbs--”a heavy arm or foreleg”--upon his ‘chest” proved its “organic” nature.

The protagonist, determined to return to the mansion, enlists the aid of a reporter he’d met, Arthur Munroe, and they discover an “ancestral diary” that sheds light upon some of the Martense family’s exploits.

Accompanied by a few local men, the protagonist and Munroe attempt to ascend the mountaintop again, but are stalled by a torrential downpour. The men wait out the storm inside a shack, barring the door. They have no light but their “pocket lamps” and occasional bolts of lightning. When the storm passes, the protagonist unbars the door, and awakens Munroe, but, he finds, Munroe is not asleep: “For Arthur Munroe was dead. And on what remained of his chewed and gouged head there was no longer a face.”

In part three of the story, the protagonist digs up the body of Jan Martense, whose grave is located in one of the more inhospitable sites of the forbidding landscape, for he has now become convinced that the demonic shadow he saw the night he’d kept vigil within Jan Martense’s bedroom is not corporeal, after all, but a “wolf-fanged ghost that rode the midnight lightning” and that the ghost is that of the occupant of Jan Martense’s grave. As he digs at the grave, the protagonist recalls the history of the Martense mansion that he’s learned from the “ancestral diary.” It was built in 1670 by a reclusive Dutchman, Gerrit Martense, whose equally reclusive progeny soon “deteriorated,” restricting their travels to the local area and marrying the “menial class about the estate,” thereby populating the locality with the squatters who’d recently come to ruin.

Jonathan Gifford, “an Albany friend of Jan Martense,” was disturbed when their correspondence broke off abruptly. Journeying to the Martense mansion, he was told by the “sullen, odd-eyed Martenses” who resided there that Jan was killed by a stroke of lightning. They showed Gifford his unmarked grave, but he was suspicious and returned to dig up the plot. When he did so, his suspicions were confirmed, because the body’s skull was “crushed cruelly as if by savage blows.” Although no crime could be proven, when the story was reported, the Martenses were ostracized and dark legends about them and their house began to accumulate. After 1810, the house was deserted.

When the protagonist finds that Jan Martenses’ coffin contains nothing more than “dust and nitre,” he “irrationally” continues to dig, falling through the bottom of the grave, into a tunnel beneath the burial site. The underground passage extends in two directions, and the protagonist chooses the one that leads toward the Martense mansion. After he crawls for an hour through the narrow confines of the tunnel, it ascends, revealing two “baleful” eyes of a clawed monster that digs its way past the terrified intruder, summoned to the surface by the sound of thunder. The protagonist manages to claw his way to the surface and finds he has emerged “in a familiar spot. . . on the southwest corner of the mountain.” He sees a red glare in the distance. Two days later, he learns “what the red glare meant”: the monster had attacked a squatters’ cabin, and the squatters had set the cabin ablaze with the monster inside: “In a hamlet twenty miles away an orgy of fear had followed the bolt which brought me above ground, and a nameless thing had dropped from an overhanging tree into a weak-roofed cabin. It had done a deed, but the squatters had fired the cabin in a frenzy before it could escape. It had been doing that deed at the very moment the earth caved in on the thing with the claw and eyes.”

In part four of the story, the protagonist returns to the underground passage, but it has caved in. He also visits the site of the monster’s attack, but finds only the bones of its victim. Despite having been struck by lightning, the monster seems to have escaped unharmed. He next inspects the now-deserted hamlet that the monster had previously attacked, killing seventy-five squatters. He discovers that the “odd mounds and hummocks of the region” are like “tentacles” radiating from the Martense mansion. Thinking that the mounds and hummocks resemble “molehills,” the protagonist digs into one of them, discovering within “a tunnel or burrow just like the one through which” he “had crawled on the other demoniac night.” He returns to the mansion, seeking the “core and centre of that malignant universe of mounds,” excavating the cellar of the house, before discovering this “core and centre” to be the chimney in Jan Martense’s bedroom, at the base of which, outside the house, the protagonist’s excavations have brought him. A wind blows out his candle, leaving him in utter darkness. He seeks cover “behind a dense clump of vegetation,” and, as thunder booms, he wonders what monster it shall summon or whether “anything [is] left for [the thunder]. . . to call.” He witnesses not one, but thousands, of shapeless shapes that, ultimately, take the form or deformed monkeys:

The thing came abruptly and unannounced; a demon, ratlike scurrying from pits remote and unimaginable, a hellish panting and stifled grunting, and then from that opening beneath the chimney a burst of multitudinous and leprous life--a loathsome night spawned flood of organic corruption more devastatingly hideous than the blackest conjurations of mortal madness and morbidity. Seething, stewing, surging, bubbling like serpents' slime it rolled up and out of that yawning hole, spreading like a septic contagion and streaming from the cellar at every point of egress--streaming out to scatter through the accursed midnight forests and strew fear, madness, and death.

God knows how many there were--there must have been thousands. To see the stream of them in that faint intermittent lightning was shocking. When they had thinned out enough to be glimpsed as separate organisms, I saw that they were dwarfed, deformed hairy devils or apes--monstrous and diabolic caricatures of the monkey tribe.

Once again, the protagonist manages to escape, after shooting the last of the fiends, and he arranges to destroy the mansion, dynamiting it, and to “stop up all the discoverable mound-burrows.” However, he remains anxious, wondering whether, the world over, “analogous phenomena” may not also exist. Even “a well or subway entrance” now makes him tremble, he concludes, and he is forever haunted by the memory of the visage of the monster he saw after shooting it, which turns out to have been one of the Martense family members:

What I saw in the glow of flashlight after I shot the unspeakable straggling object was so simple that almost a minute elapsed before I understood and went delirious. The object was nauseous; a filthy whitish gorilla thing with sharp yellow fangs and matted fur. It was the ultimate product of mammalian degeneration; the frightful outcome of isolated spawning, multiplication, and cannibal nutrition above and below the ground; the embodiment of all the snarling and chaos and grinning fear that lurk behind life. It had looked at me as it died, and its eyes had the same odd quality that marked those other eyes which had stared at me underground and excited cloudy recollections. One eye was blue, the other brown. They were the dissimilar Martense eyes of the old legends, and I knew in one inundating cataclysm of voiceless horror what had become of that vanished family; the terrible and thunder-crazed house of Martense.

Note: "The Lurking Fear" may be downloaded, FREE. Here's the link.

Now that we have pinned the specimen upon the board, let’s “murder to dissect.”

Stories told in parts or chapters are not new. However, Lovecraft’s “Lurking Fear” is a lesson in how to make such narrative segments, which, in the genre of horror, might be called “slices of horror,” maintain mystery and heighten suspense by presenting seemingly unrelated, bizarre incidents which, at story’s end, are unified in an explanation that accounts for these incidents and the relationships among them.

In the first part of the story, Lovecraft hints at several possible identities for his story’s antagonist or--he is not clear even as to their number--antagonists. The villain could be a ghost, a demon, or some sort of monster with fangs and claws. He is ambiguous as to the creature’s origin as well. Local residents believe that it is associated with the Martense mansion atop Tempest Mountain. However, the narrator of the story, who is also the narrative’s protagonist, suggests that it may be linked to the weather--particularly, to the thunder. (The mansion and the weather, in fact, may themselves be connected in some way, as the house’s location, atop a mountain that takes its very name from a storm, or “tempest,” suggests.) Lovecraft’s multiplication of these possibilities is only one instance of such multiplications to be found in “The Lurking Fear.” On one occasion, the protagonist is certain that the creature is “organic,” or corporeal, but, later, he is just as sure that it is incorporeal. Obviously, it cannot be both, so which is it, tangible or intangible?

Another way by which Lovecraft multiplies possibilities (and therefore promotes ambiguity) in his tale is by suggesting several possibilities as to the creature’s point of origin. It is said to dwell in “some secret place.” Is it located in the house, in Jan Martense’s grave, in an underground tunnel, in the “odd mounds and hummocks of the region,” or elsewhere? Indeed, at times, it seems to drop out of the sky. Is it of an aerial nature? Neither the protagonist nor his companions, George Bennett and William Tobey, staying overnight in the mansion, know whether to expect the ghost, the demon, or the clawed monster to attack them from within or from without the house, so they are careful to suspend three rope-ladders from the ledge on the wall outside the room, one for each of them, in the event that the monster’s assault is from outside rather from inside the house. When the creature abducts Bennett and Tobey, it’s as if the men simply ceased to exist: they are simply gone, leaving “no trace, not even of a struggle,” and are “never heard of again.” Repeatedly, the reader wonders just what sort of threat it is that the protagonist faces. There are clues aplenty as to its possible identity, but none of them add up. All is confused and ambiguous. Therefore, and thereby, the story’s horror is increased, and its terror mounts.

In part two of the story, determined, despite what has befallen George and William, to solve the mystery of the Martense mansion, the protagonist, enlisting the aid of a journalist, Arthur Munroe, and some local men, is returning to the mountaintop when the onset of a violent rainstorm forces them to seek shelter inside a rude shack. In the darkness therein, Munroe is killed, losing his face to the monster’s appetite. Earlier in the same part of the story, the protagonist asserted his conviction that their adversary is “organic,” because, he says, he felt it rest a limb upon his chest. Once again, however, Lovecraft leaves open alternatives as to the nature of the story’s antagonist. The sensation that the main character felt of something laying a limb upon his body and the gouging of Munroe’s head and the devouring of his face suggest an entity that is corporeal. However, the silence with which the monster comes and goes and its ability to get inside the locked hovel imply that it is incorporeal. Is it a ghost, a demon, a monster of fang and claw? A combination of such creatures? Something else entirely? Ambiguity--hence horror--reigns.

This ambiguity is further complicated in the third part of the tale, when the protagonist, now supposing the monster may be a ghost, rather than an “organic” entity, visits the grave of Jan Martense. After digging up and discarding the coffin within the grave, he digs farther down, and falls through the bottom of the grave, into a tunnel, wherein he encounters the adversary. Previously, all he’d seen of it was its shadow, which he described as “a blasphemous abnormality from hell’s nethermost craters; a nameless, shapeless abomination which no mind could fully grasp and no pen even partly describe.” Now, the monster is described as having eyes that glisten and glow “with a baneful and unmistakable effulgence,” as bearing a claw, and as moving “with Cyclopean rage” as it tears “through the soil above that damnable pit,” the tunnel in which the protagonist encounters it. Later, hearing of the monster’s attack upon a squatters’ cabin, the description that the squatters give is, again, of a “nameless thing” with a “claw and eyes.” Much of the hideous appearance of the creature is supplied by the reader’s imagination, rather than by Lovecraft’s description of it, and the monstrosity of the entity is thereby magnified, since it is a rare occasion during which words, even of the most skillful author, can match the apparitions that one’s imagination can conjure out of fear. Lovecraft’s description is accomplished in the same manner as he creates, maintains, and heightens the mystery and the suspense of the story itself: he portrays it piecemeal, describing only this feature or that feature of its overall appearance and leaves much of the monster in the dark, so to speak. At the same time, by having previously supplied the reader with an array of possibilities as to the nature of the antagonist (ghost, demon, monster with fangs and claws), he has provided some possibilities from which the reader may piece together the rest of the entity, which is likely to be some conglomeration of these alternatives. Later, Lovecraft’s protagonist will offer readers yet another description, different than those that he has supplied already.

Part four of the story links the mountaintop mansion to the surrounding countryside in which the “nameless thing’s” attacks occur. When the protagonist, visiting the site at which the seventy-five squatters had been killed by the monster a few days before, he discovers “odd mounds and hummocks of the region” which are like “tentacles” radiating from the Martense mansion. He digs into the side of one of these mounds, finding a tunnel that he follows back to the house, intent upon finding its origin, and, outside the mansion, near its chimney, he locates a hole, out of which rushes not one, by thousands, of the monsters he hunts, looking, again, different both from the shadow that the protagonist saw on the chimney inside Jan Martense’s bedroom and the eyes and claw he saw inside the tunnel. At first, the fiendish creature seems to have no specific shape: “from that opening beneath the chimney a burst of multitudinous and leprous life--a loathsome night spawned flood of organic corruption more devastatingly hideous than the blackest conjurations of mortal madness and morbidity. Seething, stewing, surging, bubbling like serpents' slime it rolled up and out of that yawning hole, spreading like a septic contagion and streaming from the cellar at every point of egress--streaming out to scatter through the accursed midnight forests and strew fear, madness, and death.” However, after the protagonist shoots one of the things, he sees that it does have an appearance similar to that of a familiar creature. It resembles an ape or a gorilla, but one that is terribly deformed: “The object was nauseous; a filthy whitish gorilla thing with sharp yellow fangs and matted fur. It was the ultimate product of mammalian degeneration; the frightful outcome of isolated spawning, multiplication, and cannibal nutrition above and below the ground; the embodiment of all the snarling and chaos and grinning fear that lurk behind life.” The fiendish creature is, the protagonist realizes, with almost palatable horror, a descendant of the Martenses themselves: “It had looked at me as it died, and its eyes had the same odd quality that marked those other eyes which had stared at me underground and excited cloudy recollections. One eye was blue, the other brown. They were the dissimilar Martense eyes of the old legends, and I knew in one inundating cataclysm of voiceless horror what had become of that vanished family; the terrible and thunder-crazed house of Martense.”

The mystery of the monster is solved, but the reader must fit together the pieces of the puzzle that Lovecraft’s protagonist-narrator has provided, piecemeal, throughout the story, resolving apparent discrepancies and contradictions for him- or herself, which makes the story more intriguing than it might have been had the author done this work on the reader’s behalf. In doing so, the reader is apt to conclude, from the story’s hints at incest and cannibalism and the once-wealthy family’s descent into poverty before they’d abandoned the house that, as a result of incestuous intermarriages over generations, the family’s descendants have mutated into a starving, cannibalistic clan who are dependent upon human flesh for their sustenance and have, therefore, dug the “tentacles” of tunnels as a means of stalking the squatters and other inhabitants of the surrounding countryside, whom the mutants kill and feed upon. Perhaps the storms enrage them. Certainly, at times, the storms provide the cover of darkness, except during intermittent flashes of lightning, and they are violent enough to require that people seek shelter indoors, where they are trapped. Appearing abruptly from their hidden tunnels, the mutated cannibals seem, at various times to various victims, to be ghosts or demons or monsters most notable for their bright eyes and hideous claws.

Lovecraft, however, leaves it to his readers to figure out the mystery of the horror that his protagonist, as narrator, has described, and, although Lovecraft has provided all the necessary clues, he has done so not only in a piecemeal fashion, but also in a manner that seems to be ambiguous and even contradictory, multiplying possible alternatives and explanations instead of eliminating them, which complicates and enriches the elements of horror and terror while, at the same time, making it more difficult for the reader to solve the mystery. When his protagonist suggests a resolution, it accounts for the many bizarre incidents, and, in that sense, satisfies the logic but, at the same time, does not alleviate the story’s horror and, in fact, may elevate it. In the hands of a lesser writer, a narrative of this sort, might have proved overwhelming, but Lovecraft is one of the great names in the genre, and, in “The Lurking Fear” (despite the inferior art on the cover of the anthology that contains this narrative “and other stories”), he has written another tour de force.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

More Free Books

In previous posts, Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear told you where you can download FREE motion pictures, video games, music, and more. In this post, we’re identifying six more websites at which you can download FREE books in a variety of genres. Why? Because we’re looking out for you! Both fiction and non-fiction are available in prose and poetry alike:

Free Bible download
Free books by H. P. Lovecraft
Many Books
Planet PDF
Project Gutenberg
Shakespeare Search

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Cliffhanger

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Charles Dickens

As we mentioned in a previous post, Charles Dickens invented the cliffhanger as a way to get his readers to buy the next issue of the magazine in which his current story was running. It worked, and it’s been used ever since, both in novels and in films. Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, divided each episode into a teaser and three acts. The teaser is a cliffhanger in and of itself, but acts one through three also each end with a cliffhanger. The last may also end on a cliffhanger, especially if the episode is to be continued in the next installment. Otherwise, it typically ends on a poignant note or, sometimes, by expressing the episode’s theme. The show’s creator, Joss Whedon, said that he and the writers would work out the basic story, complete with cliffhangers, and then fill in the action between these points.

Joss Whedon

Using the episode “Angel,“ from the series’ first season, here’s the way it works:

Teaser: Buffy Summers is attacked by three vampires.

Act I: Buffy discovers that Angel is a vampire.

Act II: Buffy finds Angel kneeling beside her unconscious mother.

Act III: Buffy aims a crossbow at Angel.

Act IV: Buffy and Angel kiss, and her cross leaves its shape burned into his chest.

Between these endings, the episode’s plot is segmented:

Teaser: Buffy is attacked by three vampires.

Frustrated at Buffy Summers’ killing of his minions, The Master, a vampire-king, sends “The Three,” especially proficient vampire assassins, to slay the slayer. At the local teenage nightclub, the Bronze, the annual pre-fumigation party is underway. Willow Rosenberg consoles Buffy about not having a boyfriend, while Xander Harris narrowly avoids being beaten up after he tries to impress a girl with a big boyfriend. Buffy leaves the club and is attacked by The Three.

Act I: Buffy discovers that Angel is a vampire.

Angel appears and helps Buffy fight The Three. When they get the chance to do so, they run, taking refuge in Buffy’s house. They will be safe inside, Angel says, because a vampire cannot come inside unless invited. Her mother, Joyce, catches him there. Buffy says he’s a college student who’s been helping her with her history class. Joyce suggests that it’s time for Angel to leave and for Buffy to go to bed. Joyce goes upstairs, to bed, and Buffy pretends to say goodnight, but he follows her upstairs, to her bedroom. The next day, at school, Buffy tells her watcher (mentor), Rupert Giles, and Willow and Xander about her fight and how Angel spent the night, making Xander jealous. Giles identifies the vampires as special warriors and says that, having failed, they will now offer their lives to The Master in penance. The assassins do so, and The Master, pretending he will spare them, allows the vampire Darla, one of his favorite followers, to kill them on his behalf. Joyce cautions Buffy not to rush into a relationship with Angel. He’s still in her room, and she sneaks food upstairs to him. They kiss, and he transforms into a vampire.

Act II: Buffy finds Angel kneeling beside her unconscious mother.

Buffy tells Giles, Willow, and Xander that Angel’s a vampire. Darla visits Angel in his above-ground apartment and tells him and tries to interest him in her, but he’s not interested. At the Sunnydale High School library, Giles fills the teens in as to Angel’s history: “he’s a vicious, violent animal.” Darla visit’s the library, where Buffy and Willow, taking a break from studying, talk about Angel. Buffy admits she is fond of him, and Willow tells Buffy she likes Xander. As Buffy tells Willow how she felt when Angel kissed her, Darla eavesdrops on their conversation. As Joyce works on her taxes, someone knocks at the door. She opens it, and sees Darla, who claims to be Buffy’s classmate, come to study with Buffy. Joyce invites her into the house. Angel, stopping by Buffy’s house, is about to leave without knocking when he hears Joyce scream. Darla has bitten her, and she tosses her body to Angel, inviting him to feed. Angel transforms into a vampire. Darla slips out of the house, and Buffy, arriving home from the library, sees her mother’s throat punctured and Angel, as a vampire, seeming about to feed upon her mother.

Act III: Buffy aims a crossbow at Angel.

Angel flees, and Buffy calls an ambulance. At the hospital, Giles, Willow, and Xander join Buffy in visiting Joyce, who tells them that a “friend” of Buffy’s stopped by and that Joyce was going to make a sandwich for her when she must have slipped and fallen, cutting herself. After they leave Joyce’s room, Buffy tells the others she plans to kill Angel, who, she suspects, lives near the Bronze. Giles tells her she may need more than a stake to accomplish the task, and she retrieves the crossbow from the library. Darla tries to persuade Angel to rejoin her and The Master. Joyce talks to Giles, and he learns the identity of the friend who visited her--Darla. He leaves, telling Willow and Xander that they have a problem with which to deal. At the Bronze, Buffy finds Angel, aiming the crossbow at him.

Act IV: Buffy and Angel kiss, and her cross leaves its shape burned into his chest.

Angel reverts to his human form, and Buffy can’t kill him. He confesses to the terrible deeds he’s committed in the past and tells her of the Gypsy curse that restored his soul, making him feel remorse for his misdeeds and want to repent. He denies having bitten Joyce and cannot bring himself to bite Buffy when she offers him her neck. Darla arrives, carrying revolvers, which she uses against Buffy and her crossbow. Giles, Willow, and Xander also arrive, and, to distract Darla as she’s about to kill Buffy, Willow blurts out that it was Darla, not Angel, who bit Joyce. Darla is standing on top of a pool table. Buffy jerks her feet out from under her, and she falls on her back atop the table, still firing her weapons at Buffy. To distract Darla again, Giles turns on the club’s strobe lights. As Darla, recovering, stalks Buffy, Angel sneaks up behind her and stabs her with an arrow. She bursts into dust, and Angel leaves. The
Master reacts with rage upon learning that Angel has killed Darla, but his disciple, the Anointed One, comforts him. Buffy brings Joyce a plate of vegetables, telling her she must eat them to build up the iron in her blood. At the Bronze’s post-fumigation party, Buffy, Willow, and Xander joke, but Buffy looks for someone she’s expecting. She sees Angel and goes to meet him. Angel has come to tell Buffy that their love can never be, and she agrees. They kiss, and Buffy returns to Willow and Xander. The smoking imprint of Buffy’s cross is imprinted in Angel’s chest.

Note: This summary is based upon the original shooting script for this episode, by Joss Whedon.

The cliffhanger is so successful that most novelists routinely use it to end many, if not all, chapters, and virtually all television shows and motion pictures employ the device as a matter of course, even, as Whedon does, using the cliffhangers themselves as a means of moving the story’s action forward, from key moment to key moment, making each key moment especially dramatic, and filling in the spaces between these points. The method is a refinement of the strategy outlined by Gustave Freytag, in which an inciting moment gives rise to the action, a turning point sets the plot off in the opposite direction it has previously taken, and a moment of final suspense leaves audiences wondering how the story will end. Obviously, a cliffhanger can be much more than simply a way to tease the reader into coming back (or staying tuned) for more.

As a side note, some writers, of horror and otherwise, also employ the teaser. Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond thrillers, started many chapters of his spy novels with a teaser, consisting of a line, often of dialogue, from the chapter that the teaser introduced. The dialogue was always intriguing and compelling, creating suspense or curiosity.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments’ as a Hermeneutics for Horror Fiction

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Adam Smith, alive

In Chapter 1 of Part I (“of the propriety of Action”) of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith makes a number of statements of interest to writers of fiction, horror and otherwise. He finds pity or compassion to be natural emotions, present even in “the greatest ruffian,” and considers the basis of these sentiments to be the individual’s ability to project him- or herself into the situation of another by means of an imaginative identification with the other’s plight. Such sympathy, he contends, is the “source of our fellow-feeling” regarding both the “misery” and the “joy” of others.

The examples that he offers in support of his view are often such as would warm the heart of the horror aficionado. For instance, he argues that the suffering, both physical and emotion, of a victim who is being tortured upon the rack remains inaccessible to an observer: “as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. . . . It is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of” the other’s “which our imaginations copy.” In short, to each individual, everything is all about oneself, even one’s identification with another’s misery or joy.

Smith’s view is in keeping with the theory that fiction, whether it takes the form of narrative poetry, the short story, the novel, or drama of the stage or screen, is based upon the premise that the reader or the viewer--the audience--identifies, imaginatively, with the plight of the protagonist, or the main character, experiencing the action, as it were, through this character’s eyes and ears and enjoying or enduring, as the case may be, his or her experiences.

One who doubts this contention, Smith says, has proof of it in the way that people imitate the actions of those with whom they have formed an imaginative association. Observer will witness a man draw back his hand or limb when it is about to be chopped off, he says, and the observer will likewise snatch his or her own hand back. A crowd, observing a hanged man, will jerk their bodies in imitation of the hanged man’s paroxysms, he adds. Something similar is true when, seeing a body falling from a height, we might add, the observer averts his or her gaze, not caring to see the terrible moment of impact, although, of him- or herself, the observer feels nothing real; he or she merely imagines what such a collision would feel like, were the observer in the place of the unfortunate person who is falling. Moreover, Smith avers, the more vivid the sight--the gorier or the more ghastly, the horror writer might suggest--the greater the emotional effect it has upon those who are mere observers of another’s plight.

Applying these principles to drama, Smith contends that we are joyful at the “deliverance of those heroes of tragedy or romance who interest us” and are grateful “towards those faithful friends who did not desert them in their difficulties; and we heartily go along with their resentment against those perfidious traitors who injured, abandoned, or deceived them.” In other words, readers bond with sympathetic characters, liking those who assist them and disliking those who harm or neglect them. (By “sympathetic,” we do not necessarily mean a character of whom the reader is fond; rather, a sympathetic character may be one whom the reader likes--but the sympathetic character may also be one who, although disliked, is understood or one who is intriguing in some way. Of course, a character with too many negative traits, or with even a single negative trait that is extreme and significant enough to overwhelm his or her positive traits, will not be sympathetic, even if he or she is both understood and intriguing.)

Smith believes that sympathy is a result more of situation than of the display of emotion, as is seen by the fact that an observer may feel an emotion, such as embarrassment, by observing someone who, although behaving rudely, is not embarrassed him- or herself.

His observation seems to suggest, when applied to fiction, that Aristotle was correct in assigning greater value and importance to plot than to character--or, at least, to the emoting of characters. The living’s ability to identify with the dead (or their idea of the dead) seems to be the clearest demonstration that sentiments are reflections of the self’s responses to imagined situations. After all, the dead feel nothing, but we, the living, imagine how we would feel if we were in their place, but sensate, rather than insensate: “the idea of. . . dreary and endless melancholy. . . arises altogether from our joining to the change, which has been produced upon them [death, decay, dissolution, being forgotten] our own consciousness of that change, from putting ourselves in their situation, and from our lodging. . . our own living souls in their inanimate bodies.” The “dread of death,” or, more precisely, the fear of nothingness, mortifies humanity, but it is a “great restraint upon the injustice of mankind. . . guards and protects society,” Smith suggests.

Adam Smith, dead

His description of “the dread of death” is worth quoting at length, because of its implications for writers of horror (and other) fiction:

We sympathize even with the dead, and overlooking what is of real importance in their situation, that awful futurity which awaits them, we are chiefly affected by those circumstances which strike our senses, but can have no influence upon their happiness. It is miserable, we think, to be deprived of the light of the sun; to be shut out from life and conversation; to be laid in the cold grave, a prey to corruption and the reptiles of the earth; to be no more thought of in this world, but to be obliterated, in a little time, from the affections, and almost from the memory, of their dearest friends and relations. Surely, we imagine, we can never feel too much for those who have suffered so dreadful a calamity. The tribute to our fellow-feeling seems doubly due to them now, when they are in danger of being forgot by every body; and, by the vain honours which we pay to their memory, we endeavour, for our own misery, artificially to keep alive our own melancholy remembrance of their misfortune. That our sympathy can afford them no consolation, seems to be an addition to their calamity; and to think that all we can do is unavailing, and that, what alleviates all other distress, the regrets, the love, and the lamentations of their friends, can yield no comfort to them, serves only to exasperate our sense of their misery. The happiness of the dead, however, most assuredly is affected by none of these circumstances; nor is it the thought of these things which can ever disturb the profound security of their repose. The idea of that dreary and endless melancholy, which arises altogether from our joining to the change, which has been produced upon them, our own consciousness of that change, from putting ourselves in their situation, and from our lodging. . . our own living souls in their inanimate bodies, and then conceiving what would be our emotions in this case. It is from this very illusion of the imagination, that the foresight of our own dissolution is so terrible to us, and that the idea of those circumstances, which undoubtedly can give us no pain when we are dead, makes us miserable when we are alive.
Edgar Allan Poe uses this tendency of people to project their own emotions--and their consciousness--upon others, including inanimate corpses, to great effect in his horrific short story, “The Premature Burial,” in which a man, buried alive, experiences what we, the living, imagine would be the horror of the grave, were we, yet alive, to be put in the place of the dead.

The body may be corporeal and earthbound, but, through the imagination, the mind, or soul, becoming all things, transcends time and space, to reach out and beyond, and to assume the forms of rocks, insects, plants, animals, other human beings, or the gods themselves. In horror fiction, as often as not, the soul also descends to the level of the demonic, exploring the underworlds of Hades and hell. The monster, we find, is ourselves--but it is only one aspect and one avatar of ourselves. We are the three worlds--the world of the divine, the world of the earthly, and the world of the diabolic. By showing us what is horrible, horror fiction shows us, also, what is good; by demonstrating the worthless, horror fiction shows us, too, what is worthwhile. As such, in the face even of death and nothingness, horror fiction is a guide to the good life. Life and, indeed, existence-itself, is all about us, but, paradoxically, at the same time, nothing is about us. Were it not for fiction, pantheism would be necessary, for we are protean, and we would populate all things and nothing.

In future posts, we will consider other ways in which Adam Smith’s views are, at times, at least, something of a hermeneutics for horror fiction.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Buffy: More than Pastiche

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a pastiche, as executive producer Marti Noxon freely admits in a comment on the series’ third season compact disc (CD). Most viewers believe the series was far superior during its first three seasons than it was thereafter. One reason for this, perhaps, is that the show based many of its earlier episodes upon classic horror monsters, offering Buffy’s take on them. If “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” as Charles Caleb Cotton said, Buffy is positively sycophantic toward such artists and movies as:

  • Cat People (“The Pack”)
  • The Terminator, and (if only in the title) Tarzan the Ape Man (“I Robot, You Jane”)
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (“Nightmares”)
  • H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man (“Out of Sight, Out of Mind”)
  • Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (“Some Assembly Required”)
  • The Mummy (“Inca Mummy Girl”)
  • The Terminator (“Ted”)
  • Werewolf films and folklore (“Phases” and others)
  • The Creature from the Black Lagoon (“Go Fish”)
  • Stephen King’s Pet Semetary, Night of the Living Dead and the Gorgons (Greek mythology) (“Dead Man’s Party”)
  • Hansel and Gretel (“Gingerbread”)
  • Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (“Primeval” and other episodes featuring Adam)
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula (“Buffy vs. Dracula”)
  • Ground Hog Day (“Life Serial”)
  • Tremors (“Beneath You”)

It’s fine to be “inspired” by other writers and their works, as long as other writers’ ideas are treated differently in one’s own work--as long as, to paraphrase Noxon, one makes the other’s creature feature one’s own. Just by relating classic horror monsters to contemporary teens and the problems and issues that they face in their daily lives, Buffy goes a long way in doing this. Of course, the characters, the setting, the conflicts, the themes, and pretty much every other dramatic element also differs as a result of bringing the monsters into a new arena, just as these elements are drastically different in Bram Stoker’s Dracula as compared to Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, despite the fact that both stories feature vampires.

It may be instructive to examine Buffy’s treatment of a couple of the classic horror monsters, so, in this post, we’ll take a look at the show’s use of three in the same episode: Stephen King’s Pet Semetary, Night of the Living Dead and the Gorgons of Greek mythology, all of which inform the plot of “Dead Man’s Party,” and at werewolf lore, which is developed in “Phases” and several of the series’ other episodes.

In “Dead Man’s Party,” Buffy Summers has just returned home to Sunnydale after running away to Los Angeles, where she’d been living in a motel and working as a waitress in Helen’s Kitchen (an allusion to New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen), calling herself by her middle name, Anne. Now that she’s returned, her friends and her mother, Joyce, insist upon throwing her a welcome-home party. Unfortunately, Buffy is still struggling with the “fallout” from her “love life,” as she characterizes her problematic relationship with Angel in “I Only Have Eyes for You”: in the episode previous to “Anne,” Buffy had to dispatch Angel to hell in order to prevent him from sucking the world into the same dimension, and, in an argument with her mother, who forbade her to leave the house, Joyce told Buffy not to come back if she left the house. Buffy’s attempts to repress her feelings are not working.

After Joyce, the owner of an art gallery, hangs a Nigerian mask on her bedroom wall, she announces to Buffy that she is hosting Buffy’s welcome-home party, and sends Buffy to the basement to retrieve their better dishes. As she does so, Buffy discovers the cadaver of a cat, which mother and daughter bury in the back yard. That night, the mask glows, and the cat is resurrected. The next day, it returns to the Summers’ house, shocking Buffy and Joyce, who call Buffy’s watcher (mentor), Rupert Giles, the high school librarian. Giles traps the animal in a cage and takes it to the library to study. The resurrection of the dead, buried cat is an allusion to Stephen King’s novel, Pet Sematary, in which a beloved pet is buried after being killed and returns (as, later, a dead child, buried in the same cemetery, does, as well).

During the party, it’s clear that Buffy is not coping well with her difficulties. She seems to have been avoiding her best friend and confidante, Willow Rosenberg. Xander, on the other hand, is too busy spending time with Cordelia Chase, his newfound girlfriend, to pay Buffy much attention. Buffy overhears Joyce confide in a friend as to how difficult it is for her to have Buffy back home again. Meanwhile, Buffy is surrounded by strangers who have crashed her party. Feeling alienated and alone, she packs her bags to run away again, but she’s caught by Joyce and Willow. In a confrontation between mother and daughter, in front of her friends and the other partygoers, Buffy is humiliated. Xander also confronts her, telling her that she must deal with her problems rather than trying to repress them: “You can’t just bury things, Buffy. They’ll come right back to get you.” They do just this, in the form of zombies.

In his research, Giles learns the secret of the Nigerian mask that Joyce has hung on her bedroom wall, and rushes to the Summers house to warn Joyce and Buffy, but, on the way, he’s attacked by the zombies.

As Joyce and Xander confront Buffy, the zombies crash Buffy’s party, attacking and killing guests in a scene reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead.

One drags Joyce’s friend, Pat, down a hallway. Buffy, Joyce, Xander, and Willow take refuge in Joyce’s bedroom, where they find Pat lying on the floor, while Willow’s boyfriend, Oz, and Cordelia hide in a closet downstairs. Checking her pulse, Willow confirms their fears: Pat is dead.
As Oz and Cordelia step out of the closet, they encounter Giles, who’s just arrived, and he explains that Joyce’s mask is imbued with the power of a zombie demon, Ovu Monabi, or Evil Eye. The zombies have come to retrieve it. Whoever dons the mask becomes the demon.

Pat shocks everyone by recovering. She was dead, but, now, she lives. She’s also wearing the mask, having become the zombie demon. In a fight with Buffy, the slayer knocks the demon through Joyce’s bedroom window, and both combatants tumble off the roof, to land in the yard below. During the fight, Buffy learns that the demon can paralyze people, after the fashion of Medusa and the other Gorgons of Greek mythology, whose look could turn their victims into stone. When Oz distracts the demon, it paralyzes him, giving Buffy the chance she needs to attack the monster, and she shoves a shovel into its eyes, blinding it. Defenseless, the demon (and the body of Pat) vanishes, and those who were paralyzed recover.

The episode ends with Buffy and Willow bonding as life returns to as-close-to-normal as it gets in Sunnydale.

This episode fuses elements of the plots of King’s Pet Sematary, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the Greek myth of the Gorgons. However, these elements are synthesized in a way that makes them unique to the demands of Buffy’s continuing storyline. The resurrection of the dead cat foreshadows Pat’s resurrection, both of which are accomplished by virtue of the power of the mask; the zombies are associated with the mask, but they also represent the powerful negative emotions that Buffy has sought to repress, or bury; and the power of unresolved emotional trauma, represented by the demonic mask and the demon’s power to paralyze its victims, represents Buffy’s alienation, her inability to cope, and the destructiveness to others of her unwillingness to communicate. In using these elements, the Buffy writers have made them their own, as Noxon says, and, in doing so, have transformed them rather than simply copied them off from other writers and stories.

“Phases,” “Wild at Heart,” and other Buffy episodes use werewolf legends and folklore in a similar way to develop the TV show’s continuing storylines and themes.

There hasn’t been a definitive story about werewolves the way there has been, with Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, a definitive story about vampires. The closest that the literature of horror has come in distilling the legends and folklore regarding the hirsute horror is, perhaps, The Wolfman, starring Lon Chaney. For the most part, however, the stories concerning werewolves remains fragmented and diverse, lacking a center. In the episodes of Buffy that concern the werewolf as an antagonist, the series provides a center, if not a definitive one, for this character, as it appears in the Buffy mythos.

The show’s writers cleverly play upon the idea that the creature is a monster only on the night preceding a full moon, on the night of the full moon, and on the night following the full moon, or three days out of a month. (Traditionally, a werewolf is a werewolf only on the night of the full moon, but the show’s writers wanted to suggests that their three-day period is equivalent to a woman’s menstrual period, as Willow tells her boyfriend, Oz, the show‘s sometime-werewolf, “Three days out of the month, I’m not much fun to be around, either.”)

Willow, Buffy, Giles, and the other members of their clique protect Oz from a poacher whose specialty is werewolves. (He makes necklaces of their teeth and sells their pelts.) To protect Oz and those whom he might kill and devour were he allowed to run free during his “period,” Oz is locked inside the library’s rare books cage. In another departure from most werewolf lore, Oz suffers guilt, in “Beauty and the Beasts,” when he escapes from the cage and believes that he may be responsible for the death of a human being. In the same episode, he says, after having devoured part of the actual killer after a fight with him, which Oz, in his werewolf avatar, wins, he says, that, oddly enough, he feels full although he hasn’t eaten. Oz doesn’t recall his actions as a werewolf when he reverts to human form. Such forgetfulness is in keeping with traditional werewolf lore. However, this will change, he is assured by a fellow werewolf, Veruca, whom he meets in “Wild at Heart.” Veruca has been a werewolf longer than Oz, and, after they are intimate as werewolves (if such creatures can in any real sense of the word be intimate), she tells him that she can recall some of her experiences as a werewolf, and relishes them, as he will do as well, eventually. The prospect horrifies Oz rather than delighting him.

When Veruca approaches Oz the next night, he locks her inside the library book cage with him, and Willow finds their naked bodies, there, the next morning. Later, Veruca attacks Willow, but is saved by Oz, who, in his werewolf state, attacks and kills Veruca. Next, he turns on Willow, but Buffy’s arrival saves the witch, and, the next day, distraught at the thought that he may have killed Willow, Oz leaves Sunnydale to seek a cure for his lycanthropy.

When he finds the cure, Oz returns, finding that Willow has become enamored of another woman, her fellow college student, Tara Maclay. Enraged, he reverts to his vampire self, and attacks Tara, but he is subdued by a military platoon led by Buffy’s new boyfriend, Riley Finn. When Oz escapes, he leaves Sunnydale for good, accepting the fact that Willow loves Tara rather than him.

The romantic relationship that Oz has with Willow is another departure from traditional werewolf lore. One reason that the legends concerning this monster may remain fragmented and diverse rather than having acquired coherence and a more cohesive structure is that the beast, rather than the human, aspects of the monster have been highlighted historically. When the protagonist is more animal than man, character development is unlikely. One of Buffy’s more creative innovations with regard to the show’s use of werewolf folklore is to reverse this treatment, showing the humanity of the monster rather than the bestiality of the human. Because Oz is allowed to be not only a beast but a man, the writers can more fully develop both his character and the tradition out of which it, in part, comes. After all, werewolf is motivated, primarily, by instincts, but a person, being far more complex, is motivated by many impulses, instinctive, emotional, rational, and otherwise. The show’s use of the werewolf motif, like its use of the zombie motif, is complex, but it is also unique, because it makes it serve its own narrative and dramatic purposes. In so doing, the show makes these classic monsters its own, rather than simply using them as the monster of the week or the creature feature of the moment.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Paranormal and Supernatural Hoaxes

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

A number of paranormal and supernatural hoaxes have been, and continue to be, perpetuated upon the public; many of these, whether from a position of belief or skepticism, are of interest to published and aspiring writers of fiction concerning horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Some of the more familiar and long-standing of these frauds are included in this post.

Cousins Elsie Wright (16) and Frances Griffith (10), of Cottingley, England, photographed themselves with cutouts of cardboard fairies. Experts confirmed the authenticity of the photographs, but Kodak refused to follow suit. The pictures sparked a huge controversy, which involved, among others, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes detective stories, who wrote an article on the incident, “Fairies photographed--an epoch making event,” for Strand magazine. He wrote a follow-up account of the fairies in The Coming of the Fairies, expressing his personal conviction that they were real beings. In 1981, the girls finally admitted that the photographs were a hoax, the fairies being cardboard cutouts mounted upon hairpins.

Geometric patterns
that appear overnight in crops or pastures, as in the film Signs, are alleged to be the handiwork of extraterrestrial visitors who, perhaps, intend the designs to be navigational aids for their more navigationally challenged peers. However, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley have explained how they created such designs as a prank. Using nothing more than planks of wood, rope, hats, wire, and ingenuity, they created a 40-foot circle in only 15 minutes. When publicity proved to be less than they’d anticipated, they repeated the procedure near a natural amphitheater near a busy roadway and increased the complexity of their designs when critics were unimpressed by their simple circles. The wire was used to fashion a loop that, suspended from a hat, allowed the men to focus on a distant landmark as an aid to keeping lines straight. Their hoax was exposed when Bower’s wife, noting the high number of miles on her husband’s odometer, confronted him as to his many outings, and, afraid she’d think he was being unfaithful to her, he confessed his and Chorley’s hobby. Others have since taken up the practice, which has become something of an international pastime.

Lyall Watson claimed that Japanese scientists observed the so-called hundredth monkey effect, in which, once a number of the animals learned to wash sweet potatoes, the practice was instantly performed by other monkeys on nearby islands as well. However, this account ignores the fact that one of the monkeys who had learned to wash the vegetables by imitating older monkeys (the same way that all the others also learned the practice) had swum to one of these islands, where it lived for four years, and that sweet potatoes were introduced by humans into the area at about the time that the so-called effect was supposedly observed.

The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSICOP) Internet article, “Don’t Be Fooled: Strange Hoaxes That Endure,” debunks several paranormal hoaxes:
  • The Roswell incident, in which a crashed alien spaceship and its crew, killed in the impact, were supposedly recovered and sent to secret military installations.
  • Spiritualism, which is predicated upon channeling spirits or otherwise communicating with the dead.
  • Psychic networks, which the gullible can telephone for help with the future.
  • The Shroud of Turin, which is said to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ.
  • The Cottingley fairies (see above).
  • Crop circles (see above).
  • The Amityville Horror, the story of a supposedly haunted house, wherein a previous resident “murdered his parents and siblings,” was created by homeowners George and Kathy Lutz “over many bottles of wine” and became a major motion picture.
  • The Piltdown Man, who was comprised of a human skull and an orangutan’s jawbone.
  • Psychic surgery, which involves the supposed removal of “'tumors' and other diseased tissue” sans scalpel and anesthesia.
  • King Tut’s curse, which was supposedly inscribed over the doorway to his tomb and has caused the deaths of his final resting place’s plunderers, whereas, “in fact, ten years after the tomb was opened, all but one of the five who first entered it were still living.”

The Cardiff giant, mentioned among the “C” entries of our own “A Dictionary of the Paranormal, the Supernatural, and the Otherworldly” post, is also mentioned.

For those who are interested in the subject of paranormal and supernatural hoaxes, two excellent sources are The Skeptic’s Dictionary and James Randi Educational Foundation's An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural. We also recommend Chillers and Thrillers own four-part “Alternative Explanations” series: Part 1 , Part II, Part III, and Part IV.’s Stephen Wagner sponsors an annual “Paranormal Photo Hoax,” inviting the public to send him “a fake paranormal photo of any kind,” such as one of monsters, ghosts, poltergeists, fairies, UFO’s, or “anything else you can dream up.” Stories concerning the photographs are also welcome, he says. He’s the judge, and certain “terms and conditions” apply. Interested parties can read more at his blog, Paranormal Phenomena.

The Monster as the Mirror of the Protagonist’s Soul

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

Monsters are often metaphors, as we saw in the “Metaphorical Monsters” post. However, monsters are often also foils to horror stories’ main characters. As Robert Louis Stevenson showed us, in The Strange Adventures of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the monster is, or can be, just an alter ego of oneself, one’s bitter half, rather than one’s better half. In Jungian terms, the monster is the shadow archetype, comprised of the collection of those aspects of oneself that an individual represses.

As a foil, the monster’s character traits are opposite to those of the monster’s attributes. They illuminate by contrast, showing readers or viewers more clearly what the main character is like. Usually, there is only a single foil, but there may be more than one. For example, in the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Faith, the rogue slayer, is a foil to Buffy, and, because of Faith’s irresponsibility, we better discern Buffy’s reliability and trustworthiness; Faith’s narcissism allows us to better see Buffy’ altruism; Faith’s amorality lets us better perceive Buffy’s morality. Although Buffy is spontaneous and independent, she is not, like Faith, rash and reckless--well, not as a rule. The only other slayer whom viewers observe over several episodes, Kendra, is a foil to Buffy as well, although she’s not a monster, as Faith, at times, in a way, tends to be. Kendra contrasts sharply with Buffy in several ways, among which are:
Buffy is spontaneous; Kendra is inhibited.

  • Buffy is affable; Kendra is reserved.

  • Buffy lives with her mother; Kendra was removed from her parents’ home shortly after she was born and does not remember her parents.

  • Buffy has a boyfriend; Kendra is not allowed to date and is unsure even how she should act around members of the opposite sex.

  • Buffy is a modern, liberated young woman; Kendra is subservient to men.

  • Buffy blows off research (and homework); Kendra is more a bookworm than Buffy’s watcher, Rupert Giles.

  • Buffy is autonomous; Kendra is a follower.

  • Buffy is independent; Kendra is dependent.

  • Buffy is a fashion enthusiast; Kendra owns only one shirt.

  • Buffy shares her secret identity with her friends; Kendra keeps her identity as a slayer secret.

We could go on (and on), but you get the picture: both Faith and Kendra are foils to Buffy.

However, we begin, with Kendra, to digress. Let’s resume our consideration of how monsters can be foils to a main character.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, does not employ a foil, per se, as much as it does a symbol.

In Wilde’s story (which is surely a study of hypocrisy and false appearances), the protagonist, Dorian Gray, remains young and handsome while his portrait is aged by the sins he commits. Gray claims to love an actress, Sybil Vane, but, when, lovesick for her suitor, she loses her ability to act, he jilts her, causing her to commit suicide. Thereafter, for nearly two decades, inspired by a “poisonous” novel he receives as a gift, Gray undertakes a career in debauchery. The portrait continues to age and to become more and more repulsive, reflecting Gray’s inner state. Enraged, Gray murders the artist, Basil Hallward, who painted his likeness (and who gave him the novel). He blackmails a friend into disposing of his victim’s corpse. After a close call during which Sybil’s brother, James, seeks to murder him to avenge his sister, but is subsequently killed himself in hunting accident, Gray repents, vowing to reform. Hoping to see a change in his portrait, he finds that it is uglier and more aged than ever, whereupon, in a newfound capacity for self-reflection, he wonders whether curiosity or vanity prompted him to check on his portrait’s appearance. He tries to confess his sins and change his ways, before it is too late to save his soul, but he hasn’t the will to do so, and, instead, he plunges a knife--the same weapon with which he’d earlier dispatched Hallward, and is found by his servants, aged and shriveled, it being necessary to examine the rings he wears in order to identify his remains. The portrait is the picture of youth and health that it was when Hallward had first unveiled it.

Gray’s portrait is limited as a means of illustrating the temptations Gray faces and their specific effects on his own life and the lives of those he encounters. For this reason, perhaps, Wilde shows his protagonist’s behavior and its consequences directly, using the portrait to symbolize the effects of his treacherous behavior and his dedicated debauchery upon the protagonist’s inner man. Outwardly, he remains young and handsome, but his portrait shows the true state of his soul. It also indicates, from time to time, his emotional state, as when the picture sneers after Gray has treated Sybil in an abusive manner, thereby showing the contempt that he feels for her but does not show in his actual behavior toward her--not until he jilts her, at any rate. There is only so much that can be accomplished through the use of an inanimate object, after all.

Stevenson’s novel divides the good self from the bad, with Dr. Jekyll’s creation a potion that transforms him into the hideous Mr. Hyde. The monstrous alter ego differs from its creator in several important ways and, thus, serves as a true, if limited, foil:

  • Dr. Jekyll is moral; Mr. Hyde is without a conscience.

  • Dr. Jeckyll is socially respectable; Mr. Hyde freely indulges his passions, including his sexual lusts.

  • Dr. Jekyll is a cultivated man; Mr. Hyde is a little more than a wild animal.

  • Dr. Jekyll is a man of reason; Mr. Hyde is a sociopath.

  • Dr. Jekyll is law-abiding; Mr. Hyde is criminal.

However, the dichotomies aren’t really this simple, for, after all, it is Dr. Jekyll who invents the potion, and it is he who, of his own, free will, drinks it. Mr. Hyde is not another; as an adversary, he is not an external “other,” but the repressed aspects of Dr. Jekyll’s own personality. The conflict in Stevenson’s story is psychological and moral, not social (although the conflict does have social implications). Mr. Hyde is the self whom Dr. Jeckyll desperately wants to be, at intervals and for a time, at least; he is, in Jungian terms, Dr. Jekyll’s shadow, the repressed, largely unconscious part of his personality. In the end, Mr. Hyde takes over completely, killing himself and, as a result, Dr. Jekyll as well. Stevenson suggests that social norms and personal restraints, or morality and conscience, may not be sufficient, in the end, to control the beast within. When they are not, the result is not only crime and sin, but also death and destruction. The use of Mr. Hyde as a foil to Dr. Jekyll allows readers to see a greater, and, indeed, a hidden dimension of the protagonist, suggesting that, appearances to the contrary, Dr. Jekyll may not be as moral, respectable, cultivated, reasonable, and law-abiding as he seems, and, of course, he also allows Dr, Jekyll to discover this same truth about himself.

Other horror characters also have alter egos, or second selves. Count Dracula appears to be a cultivated, cosmopolitan, suave, and sophisticated man of refined tastes, capable of witty repartee and hospitality. He seems to be a well educated man of reason, and, in fact, he can be downright charming. However, he is also a vampire, and, as such, harbors all the attributes of the fiend that shares his body. He is parasitic, secretive, cunning, treacherous, deceitful, hypocritical, and narcissistic--all the things that, secretly, the count longs to be. The fact that man and demon inhabit the same body suggests that they are the same person, and that the vampire’s behavior represents the expression and enactment of temptations that the count normally represses. There is a fine line between the acceptable and the forbidden, at times, and the more political and economic power one has, the more opportunity he or she also has to do that which remains unthinkable to men and women who occupy lesser social positions. As a count, Dracula can be forgiven much more than a peasant would be forgiven.

He is a victim, however, of changing times, as another character, as his foil, suggests. Just as science and technology are beginning to replace religious faith and superstitious beliefs as the dominant worldview, so are nobles being replaced by a growing middle class, a member of which, Dr. Abraham van Helsing, a professor, summoned by his former student, a psychologist, proves to be the death of Dracula. The vampire’s supernatural power is no match against the professor’s use of hypnotism and medical science. Part philosopher and part “metaphysician,” van Helsing is also “one of the most advanced scientists of his day,” Steward informs the reader, and, as such, has one foot in the old, and the other in the new, world. He is a transitional figure. As such, he is a fitting antagonist and foil to the noble Count Dracula, whose world of monarchy and mysticism are coming to their ends. As with Buffy, whose foils are Kendra and Faith, Dracula has more than one opposite: the vampire is a foil to the count, just as is the professor.

Scientists have identified several possible origins for legends of werewolves, including the tendencies of some serial killers to engage in “cannibalism, mutilation, and cyclical attacks,” and have contended that the bizarre behavior of such wolf-men might have been caused by a variety of actual diseases, including “ergot poisoning” and “rabies, hypertrichosis. . . porphyria. . . . congenital erythropoietic porphria. . . . photosensitivity. . . . clinical lycanthropy” and “psychosis,” many of which conditions involve hallucinations and bizarre behavior. Be that as it may, werewolves represent another instance of a character with an alter ego, since, except during full moons, the wolf is a man (or a woman). However, this possibility for an innate, or built-in, foil that shows the opposite traits of the same character and represents a dichotomy within the same character’s personality hasn’t been well developed, probably because, although there is a long and voluminous body of folklore involving werewolves, there has been no definitive story about one, which integrates and centers the tradition on a single, well-developed, memorable character like Count Dracula, Dr. Jekyll, or Dorian Gray. However, since a foil has traits which are opposite to those of the protagonist (even when the main character and his or her foil are, in effect, the same character, as when the foil is an alter ego rather than a separate character), it would not be difficult to identify the characteristics that such a protagonist would possess, whenever he or she comes along. All one needs to do is to identify the traits of the werewolf and then list opposite attributes:

  • The werewolf is bestial; the protagonist will be humane.

  • The werewolf is fierce; the protagonist will be gentle.

  • The werewolf is driven by its instincts; the protagonist will be cautious and deliberate.

  • The werewolf is wild; the protagonist will be cultivated.

  • The werewolf is destructive; the protagonist will be creative.

  • The werewolf seeks sanctuary among the trees of the forest; the protagonist will find refuge in a society of his or her peers.

  • The werewolf fears humans; the protagonist will be sociable and altruistic.

In such a fashion, we could go on, listing character traits and their opposites until we had the basis for constructing a protagonist for whom his or her werewolf avatar would be an appropriate and effective foil. Some day, a writer may pen the werewolf equivalent to Dracula. At such a time, the novel’s (or film’s) main character will most likely resemble the character we’ve delineated, for the monster is likely to be his foil and, thus, alert us to the hidden impulses and temptations within the protagonist whom he or she replaces whenever the monster within escapes the bounds of repression.

Leftover Plots, Part IV

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In Part 3 of this series, we saw how the creation of dynamic, complex characters with rich back stories can initiate and sustain storylines. Elements of plots can also be springboards into other stories when they leave unanswered questions or set up unresolved incidents or situations. We saw how the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Bad Eggs” does this by ending with a shot of monster’s eggs hidden in the storage closet of a biology classroom in Buffy’s high school. This thread is never picked up again, but it could have been the impetus to another story that involves the offspring of the monster that Buffy slays in the “Bad Eggs” episode, had the show’s writers wished to revisit this leftover plot. This post will consider other such leftover plots from episodes in the series’ third season.

In the first episode of this season, “Anne,” Buffy, having run away from home, assumes a new identity as “Anne,” working in Helen’s Kitchen, a Los Angeles eatery. Despite her decision to renounce her role as a vampire slayer, she agrees to assist Lily, whom she knew previously, in Sunnydale, as a vampire wannabe who was going by the name of Chanterelle. After Lily is abducted, Buffy rescues her from an alternate dimension ruled by a band of demonic entities. She then returns to Sunnydale, Lily taking over her motel room and her identity as “Anne.” What becomes of Chanterelle-Lily-Anne? What happens to the hell dimension from which Buffy rescued Lily now that she’s slain its rulers? What befalls the other captives, now that they’re free to go? Are they too broken to fend for themselves? Such unanswered questions could inspire additional Buffy stories or could suggest ideas for stories by aspiring writers in the horror or another genre of fiction, provided that neither the actual scenes nor any of the Buffy characters is used in the stories.

“Beauty and the Beasts” presents a monster that, although it is dispatched by Buffy, leaves a means for the appearance of one or more replacements who could wreck further havoc. Pete, a modern-day, high school version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, has invented a potion that transforms him into a bestial date from hell. However, he’s advanced beyond the need to use the potion, rage being sufficient now to effect the transformation, as is the case with Marvel Comics’ Incredible Hulk, and his girlfriend Debbie often is the unwitting catalyst in his change. In a fight with Oz, while Oz’s is in his werewolf state, Pete is killed (and eaten). What becomes of his potion is unclear. Although he smashes the flask in which it’s stored, viewers may well wonder whether he might have left the drug’s formula behind, to be found by another insecure and abusive youth. Since Buffy doesn’t indicate that he did (or didn’t), the possibility of this incident’s being another leftover plot exists.

Most of the leftover plots in this season involve characters who could return, but “Earshot” leaves an open-ended situation in place that could recur to set other plots in motion. During a fight with a demon, Buffy is bitten by her adversary (demons fight dirty). It’s as a result of the bite that she takes on the demon’s ability to read minds. The incessant mental chatter, so to speak, that she hears, as it were, nearly drives he mad, but it does allow her to eavesdrop upon the thoughts of a suicidal student and prevent him from killing himself, so it’s not all bad. However, she feels much better when the side-effects of the demon’s bite wear off--until she is told that they tend to recur. This device allows the opportunity for Buffy to have a relapse and to start eavesdropping on others’ thoughts again, like it or not, in future stories. Although the series never revisits this storyline, its writers certainly left themselves the choice of doing so by leaving the dramatic situation open-ended.

Having considered only a few of the lessons to be learned from a consideration of Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes, we’ll revisit the topic of “Leftover Plots” in future installments.

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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